Jo Vallentine was born in Perth on 30 May 1946, and raised in a family of five girls on a farm about 80 miles out of Perth.
Her schooling was Catholic, including 6 years as a boarder at Loreto Convent in Perth (from age 9). Jo sees her Catholic education as one contributing factor to her sense of self-identity. She was a prefect at school, and in a leadership position during her days at Teachers College.
From the late sixties, Jo was participating in anti-Vietnam war marches, and she noticed the Quakers who were acting as marshalls. In about 1971, Jo began attending Quaker meetings, and she became a Quaker about ten years later. Quakerism has been a core underpinning in the way Jo has been involved in social movements, particularly in her commitment to nonviolence, and to the peace and anti-nuclear movements.
Jo’s mother was a “very hard worker – I never heard her say she was tired”. She was very engaged in community affairs in her country town – the CWA, the Ladies Guild, tennis and golf, and her father was very involved in playing and organising sport. Jo’s maternal grandfather, George Miles, was a conservative independent politician for 33 years. Jo says that her family background gave her important examples and role models of people “who could do things and were social change agents”.
Jo’s early involvement in the peace and non-nuclear movements came about because of her almost visceral, angry response to Premier Charles Court’s announcement that Western Australia would be the first state in Australia to have a nuclear power station. Click here to listen to Jo describing her first involvement in the environment movement, and her life-long interest in Aboriginal issues.
Jo became involved with People for Nuclear Disarmament and then with the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP) after the ALP finalised its 3 uranium mine policy in 1984.
Soon after, the NDP started pressuring state groups to select Senate candidates. Jo was her party’s second choice (after Dr Harry Cohen who refused the nomination).
In 1984 Jo had two young daughters (3 and 5 years old), and was working part time as a peace educator. She fitted a profile that was attractive to the electorate – as a mother of 2 small children ,she demonstrated a need to look to the future. With the support of her husband (who had been completely reassured that she had no chance of success in the election), she flung herself into the Senate campaign, which she describes as very heady and very exciting – “a campaign like no other I’ve ever been involved in – it was magic”.
Jo prefers working with other people in community groups rather than leading groups. – “that’s the most powerful way to work” . She recognises leadership potential in herself, and also that she holds herself back from leadership– because she believes in shared leadership. She also sees herself as “a born teacher” – she remembers lining other children up in the playground to play school, with herself as a teacher. Speaking publicly has never been a problem for her, but preferably in the context of communicating ideas and generating enthusiasm for causes.
She speaks of being catapulted into a leadership position through her election to the Senate, a position vastly different from the way she had operated in her local activist groups.
Click here to listen to Jo describing the Senate campaign, the contributions of her friends and supporters, and some of the impacts that her new position had on her husband Peter, and her children. Jo was elected as an NDP Senator, but sat in the Senate as an Independent and then as a representative of the West Australian Greens.
When her older daughter was 8, Jo went to prison as part of a protest against Pine Gap. Jo talks of her concern about what impact this might have had on her children.
In Canberra, Jo and her parliamentary team shared resources and used their time as effectively as possible for community education. Much of Jo’s efforts were put into talking to community groups.
Jo and her team put enormous efforts into working collaboratively, into putting their nonviolent strategies into the workplace, and she says it worked pretty well. Jo describes one of her most difficult times as being when her staff members left her office – she had very personal connections with her staff, and also, “everyone else on staff could leave – I couldn’t”. As the only representative of her party (and as an independent) in the Senate, she had to either be there, or resign or chose not to be re-elected. At re-election time, there was a lot of soul searching.
She also acknowledges that while the team worked cooperatively and collaboratively, as the Senator, she was the one who bore the brunt of any public criticism. However, motivation has never been a problem for Jo.
Jo worked equally hard to spend time with her primary school aged children. On weekends when she was in Perth, she would be “110%” mother. When Parliament wasn’t sitting she would try to be home for at least a couple of nights per week. Being on the many, long plane trips back and forth to Canberra was a time for resting, reflecting, meditating.
Quakerism was “very grounding and important”, helping her with not getting into the slanging matches” that pervade Parliament House. Jo attended Quaker meetings in Canberra and in Perth.
When her elder daughter entered her teenage years, Jo decided that she needed to spend more time at home, and as her health was suffering, she left Parliament in 1992. Her position as WA Greens Senator was passed to Christabel Chamarette.
Jo’s activism then resumed its previous pattern of work with community group work, including helping found Alternatives to Violence Project in Western Australia, focused on sharing nonviolent skills with people in prisons, the 1997 Peace Pilgrimage as part of the anti-Nuclear alliance, the Jabiluka campaign, continuing to oppose the Iraq War and the expansion of nuclear power and weaponery (from Wikipedia). When asked how she keeps her enthusiasm for campaigns that may not be successful or even resolved for years, Jo talks of her spirituality, her walking, her love for her dog. Mentoring of younger activists is very important to her.
Jo’s role models include Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, who is a US scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Her book Despair and empowerment in the nuclear age has been a particular inspiration, and Macy has been a guru for Jo since 1985. http://www.joannamacy.net/
Jo’s story shows how her particular leadership approach of nonviolent collaboration was transported and implemented at the adversarial hub of the Australian Federal Parliament.
Perhaps others have stories about her leadership then, and in the range of organisations she continues to work with.
Please comment with your stories about Jo’s leadership. Jo and Giz Watson have both talked about the impact of Quakerism on their approach to leadership. Any thoughts/experiences of others in this area would be very interesting.